October 30, 2014

The Welfare State’s Cultural Consensus – Mutually Reinforcing Dysfunction

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In a piece last weekend George Will writes about the seeds of America’s dysfunction, which is the unsustainable consensus of receiving government “benefits” that our country can’t afford.

America’s public-policy dysfunction exists not because democracy isn’t working but because it is. Both parties are sensitive market mechanisms, measuring more than shaping voters’ preferences. The electoral system is a seismograph recording every tremor of public appetite.

At the same time Will argues that our government and our people mutually reinforce this dysfunction. So policies are passed, which we cannot afford, because the people demand it, and these policies contribute to the American sense of entitlement, and thus perpetuate these same policies.

How did we get to the point where half of the American people believe they are owed by right a significant chunk of their fellow countrymen’s hard earned wealth, and much of the other half believe we deserve just a little bit less? How did we lose so much of the self-reliant spirit and reliance on voluntary associations that Animated America’s founding and expansion across a wild and vast continent? The answers are complex and simple at the same time.

We all know of the Industrial Revolution, and the massive change it wrought in societies across the world. America like many other countries went from being primarily an agricultural economy to a largely industrial one in the 19th Century, and those forces only accelerated with the onset of the 20th. Modern capitalism, to some, seemed to require a different and more activist government in response to the vicissitudes of the free market, and this is not an unreasonable sentiment. The obvious issue is extent, and we argue that to this day and always will.

Out of this late 19th and early 20th Century milieu arose a movement known as progressivism, which was in fact a fundamental turning away from America’s Founding principles. (Hillsdale College’s Constitution 201 course is an excellent historical overview of the progressive divergence from America’s constitutional principles.) The Constitution was seen by progressives as something that inhibited progress in a modern society; they argued that because it was developed in an agrarian society, different times required different governance. Progressivism finally saw one of its own, Woodrow Wilson, take the presidency in 1913.

It is important to understand that governments arise out of the culture they inhabit, and governments in turn shape the culture in which they govern. America’s Founders and their thoughts and the documents they produced arose from a culture that yearned for liberty. So you might say it was a culture of liberty that produced a government that gave us policies that encouraged liberty, and its corollary, personal responsibility. All this began to change with the coming of industrial society and modern capitalism and the rise of progressivism in response to it.

Woodrow Wilson laid the governing foundation for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal (the income tax was passed in Wilson’s first year in office), with the Depression given as the rationale for government transfer of wealth; thus was the Welfare State born. Post WWII modern liberalism was all but unquestioned, which led to the massive expansion of government in President Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty. This entire surge in government activism has had an effect on the character of the American people: The idea of entitlement, of the “right” to other people’s money, the de-stigmatization of dependence, all of this has become part of America’s DNA. What cemented this, for the time being at least, is the culture.

There are no simplistic, direct one-to-one correlations in something as complex as a society of hundreds of millions of people, or a society of any size for that matter.  But certain professions have an outsized influence in a culture, and I speak specifically of three broad ones: media, education and entertainment. The ubiquitous state post-1960 became ingrained in the American psyche because of statist policies on the one hand and on the other, these professions of cultural influence becoming completely dominated by the progressivism of the modern liberal.

In a surprisingly short period of time, everywhere Americans turned they were being indoctrinated into progressive’s mold, in their classrooms and living rooms, in what they watched and read, in what entertained and informed them. It is not surprising that a populace so indoctrinated would demand more from its government, and would whine when threatened with government’s largess being taken away, or even lessened to a small degree. Thus the culture began to encourage people to want policies that reflected the progressive vision, and the policies enacted began to pervert the culture. The current occupant of the White House is the apotheosis of the last 50 years of this mutually reinforcing cultural and governing dysfunction.

As all this was going on, those who sit on the opposite side of the political/cultural spectrum were not sitting still. Conservatives (of every stripe) began to fight back in the mid-1950s; William F. Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale,” published in 1951, showed just how entrenched progressivism had become in the academy even at that time. It would only get worse, and in short order spill out into the wider culture. The mistake conservatives made back then was to in effect fight a one armed battle. Though complaining about the culture, as Buckley’s book did, and as became a common theme for the next 50 years, conservatives thought if they won political battles, the direction of our society would find its way back to our Founding principles. Clearly that has not happened, and primarily I would argue because conservatives ceded the professions of cultural influence to the progressives. There was no real “movement” wide initiative to “take back” these professions, to infiltrate them and fight the indoctrination from the heights of American culture.

This call to “take back” it needs to be noted has nothing to do with making the culture professions partisan. Far from it, we need to see professions that so mightily affect American culture committed to the truth, to stop being agenda driven by the politics of statism and political correctness. Imagine a real culture of liberty; it’s easy if you try, where conservative professors at major universities are not afraid to speak their mind lest they don’t get tenure; where journalists actually speak the truth to power no matter who is in power, where a screen writer in Hollywood could actually sell a script that honored traditional morality and the family. One can always dream, but I see no reason why this can’t be much more than a dream.

I first become convinced of the importance of culture in our politics back after the 2006 election when we as a nation were introduced to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid. In the years since, conservatives have become much more aware of and vocal about how these professions of cultural influence have an outsized impact on the direction of our politics and our country. It’s actually ridiculously obvious, but we simply can’t accept the status quo in these professions. Many of us felt Ronald Reagan telling Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was great and all, but we knew it would never happen, a pipe dream at best. The liberal hegemony in American culture may seem like a Berlin Wall never to fall, but its foundation is just as decayed; and it too can fall.

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